SNAP Experience 2011 – Archived Posts

The ACAA Arizona SNAP Experience 2011 drew in 50 participants from across Arizona as well as participants from Kansas and as far away as Thailand. We asked our SNAP Experience participants to blog about their week on a SNAP budget and share their reflections with us. This is a complete archive of those blog reflections. Thank you to all who participated and shared!

See more of the 2011 SNAP Experience Archives here, here and here.

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In Your Words: Thinking About Food

Participant: Sandra

Day 3 – Got organized; got my plan; wasn’t really hungry yesterday; just need to stick to it; this can’t be too hard, right? Right!!

Day 4 – Frankly, this experience is getting a little annoying. I am obsessing over food. While I appreciate a good, well crafted meal, I am not much of a menu planner or somebody who cooks elaborate meal in my daily life. Food is something that happens on the side. Eating is something you do: because you are hungry, you feel like it, it is a certain time a day or you are out with family, friends, or acquaintances. Depending on the day, you eat what you are craving, what is on the menu, or what is easy and fast, but you don’t portion it and you don’t space it to make sure it last through the day, and you certainly don’t worry if the food is going to be enough to get you through the weekend and Day 7.

Knowing that I can’t eat what I want when I want, has me thinking about food a good portion of the day. I am thinking I am hungry, when I really shouldn’t be, based on what and when I ate last. The snacking on grapes and wheat crackers are building the bridge for me but I think this is one of the physiological reasons for the increased obesity amongst poor people.

We had a reach discussion around this experience in the DES Hunger Advisory Council Meeting today and there were several comments from other members that stuck with me: – I attend community meetings on a regular basis and usually never eat at these events but I did this week because it gave me access to additional food – having experienced this, it is important to offer healthy food (not cookies and doughnuts) during these meetings.

– Although I thought I never would have to, I had to go on SNAP and I remember it well; I do not need to go back to that place through this experience.

– I grew up very poor and I feel resentment towards the restrictions this experience imposes on me.

Day 5 (Saturday) – A lot of inner struggle throughout the day: why am I doing this? Ok, I get the message, learned the lessons, do I really need to keep this up through Day 7?

And finally the self-talk of: the poor person doesn’t have a choice and you made a commitment, so quit your whining.

Out with friends that evening (who are having pizza and their preferred beverage, while I am sipping on Ice Tea); I have a chance to share my experience, why I am doing it, and how it made me feel. When asked why my friends can’t take me out, I made up the scenario that I just moved to town because the job market, while bad, was still a lot better than in my home town, and I had no friends or family. And then there was a lot of friendly teasing over getting my hair done (which I did) while on food stamps.

Day 6 – Other than the fact that I would have purchased food very differently if I had $124 for 30 days verses $29 for seven days, I keep thinking that the experience of the person that has a paycheck, is not on SNAP, and has a very limited amount left for food between paychecks, must be very similar.  Whether you are on food stamps or on an extremely tight food budget, you have to ration your food and there is no money for eating out short of the $1 menu at some fast food restaurants.

Day 7 – While looking forward to going back to my “normal life” tomorrow, I am glad I
joined in this experience. The lessons learned, the exchange with others who signed up, and the conversations with different members of my community will stay with me for a long time.

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In Your Words: The SNAP Recap

Participant: Jenny

By day 5 of the SNAP experience, my husband was getting worried for me.  I was cranky, I was running on 4 hours of sleep at night and my stomach was cramping. I did really well on Friday during the day, but by night my body was craving something more substantial.  I broke down and ate a microwave dinner that cost about $4.00, a granola bar, and pre-birthday cookie.

The days totals amounted to $8.19 and my 5 day total was at $24.78 and going out to eat total was $11.82.  A total of $36.60.  I say not bad for the first time ever doing this, I think if my birthday didn’t land on day 6 of the challenge I think I could have mentally prepared myself better for it.

One thing for sure, I appreciate the SNAP program even more.  I always thought at least people get benefits, because in the Philippines you would have to make do without any help or at least that’s how it was when my parents were growing up there.  But budgeting for that little amount makes me realize that $29.00 a week is still  not enough to get by.

I also realize how healthy food is more expensive  and can see why people can gain weight on a $29.00 a week grocery budget, because despite not having enough to eat, people cannot eat a well balanced  healthy meal.  The cheapest thing I bought during the week was a box of stuffing that had 10 servings.  After eating just 2 servings, I looked at the box and realized there was nothing nutritious about it and it was loaded with sodium and carbs.  Sure it filled me up for the short term, but I think it made me hungrier and thirstier to try to drown out all the salt I just inhaled.

This was a completely eye opening experience and one I think I will do at a later time to complete the whole 7 days to remind myself of how lucky I truly am to be able to eat healthy.

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In Your Words: 5 Lessons

Participant: Jessica

Within the first few days of my internship at ACAA I learned that our office would be facilitating and participating in the Arizona SNAP Experience: a week where participant attempt to shop, cook, and eat following a food stamp budget. To add to the experience, we would attempt to do all of this while following MyPlate, the USDA’s nutritional guidelines. Nearly a week removed from my SNAP experience, there are certainly a number of lessons learned that have not only helped me to better understand the reality of relying on nutrition assistance, but also my own role as a social worker dedicated to alleviating and preventing poverty.

Lesson #1: When you are on a limited budget, the grocery store is an incredibly stressful environment.

My typical shopping trip involves me meandering through the aisles, clutching a sale ad, picking up some staples and making a mental meal plan for the week as I come across items that seem particularly appealing. I knew when I walked in the store to purchase the food for my SNAP meals that it was going to be a completely different experience. With a precise shopping list and calculator in hand, I knew exactly where I needed to go to get the items I needed for the week. There was no point wandering through aisles that contained items I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford. As my total rose, so did my stress level. Would I have to leave things out? Do I sacrifice – fresh veggies, healthy proteins? At the check-out stand I watched the screen carefully to ensure that every item was ringing up at the appropriate price, and actually kept some items off of the belt until I was sure that I had enough money for them. Although I did feel a sense of relief when I came out 50 cents under-budget, my attentions were then turned to whether or not the food I had purchased would actually last a week.

Lesson #2: Making healthy, thoughtful meals on a budget takes a significant amount time and energy.

Something that really struck me was how much time I was spending on meal planning, shopping and cooking. I spent a few hours the day before the experience started researching weekly sales at local grocery stores, searching for meal ideas, and planning out an elaborate grocery list. Furthermore, because I was attempting to integrate MyPlate principles into my meal plan – quick, easy meals were not necessarily the best option. I found myself putting a lot more time than usual into preparing meals throughout the week. After this experience, I can certainly understand how a busy family might find it difficult to find the time to plan and prepare healthy, complete meals. Particularly for struggling families and individuals, extra time may be a luxury that they do not have.

Lesson #3: Healthy food is not always accessible.

I think it is important for me to address the privilege that I experienced while participating in this experience. In the planning stages, I scoured the internet for the best sales and recipe ideas that might make my experience a little easier. Certainly this is not a tactic that every impoverished Arizonan can employ. When you have no disposable income, even picking up a newspaper to look through ads may be out of the question. I also had the opportunity to use my vehicle to drive out of my neighborhood to a store of my choosing. If I relied on public transportation, I likely would have settled for the limited options that are closer to me.

Lesson #4: Food is social.

At least three times throughout the week, I declined offers from friends to go out to eat. As a young woman in an urban area, enjoying food and drinks with friends is a typical social event. In fact, when I think about food in general, it is deeply social.  Meals are usually shared, we give and receive food, friendships and relationships are developed and nurtured at the dinner table. Some of the best work conversations happen in the break room. Growing up, no visitor to my home would leave with an empty-stomach, or empty-handed for that matter. For me, cooking, baking and sharing meals are all expressions of love, fondness, and security. Although I willingly gave up these opportunities for the SNAP experience, I know that it would have a profound effect on my social experience if I was unable to participate in these communal rituals.

Lesson #5: Immersion is a key component of experiencing solidarity.

I am a firm believer that expressing solidarity is a vital part of what we do as social workers and human service professionals. More than being empathic or compassionate, solidarity indicates that we are committed to the common good because we are all connected and the misfortune of one affects the well-being of us all. Through immersion, we are able to “walk a mile” in another’s shoes and develop that deeper sense of understanding. Although the SNAP experience could never show me what it is truly like to struggle with financial instability and food insecurity, the immersion has helped me to more fully express my commitment to alleviating and preventing this social problem. In solidarity, we can make the leap from providing charity to fighting for justice.

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In Your Words: kitchenMage

Staff Note: Every time we plan a SNAP Experience (or Food Stamp Challenge, as we called it last year), the ACAA staff has lively discussions about the nature of SNAP, who participates in the program, and how we can best create a week that gives participants the most realistic picture possible of the experience of using SNAP. There is no perfect Challenge or Experience. No single week could ever perfectly emulate what it’s like for the roughly 46 MILLION people in the U.S. who rely on SNAP to help them purchase food. For 7 days, our participants work through hunger pains, fatigue, skipped snacks and meals, and tough choices at the grocery store. On Day 8, many (if not all) of us can look back on the experience with relief, proud to have taken part and perhaps even succeeded, but relieved to ‘go back to normal’.

For over 1.1 million people in Arizona, there is no date circled on the calendar where they can ‘go back to normal’. There is no finish line to cross. Part of the reason we changed the name of this week from ‘Challenge’ to ‘Experience’ was because we realized that the prevailing thought when people signed up for a ‘Challenge’ was that they had to ‘win’. We hope that participants this year embraced the week as an ‘Experience’, and instead of trying to beat the odds they truly tried to immerse themselves.

But the reality is this: For most of us, when the last day is over, there is a sense of completion. Of relief. Of celebration, even. But when our week ends, families on SNAP are still balancing tight budgets and deciding whether to buy more food or pay their utility bill. For so many Americans right now, there is too much month at the end of the money. It is our hope that SNAP Experience participants are truly taking some time during this week to reflect on the experience as a whole. We hope you are thinking about the choices you made this week, and how it would feel to be faced with these kinds of choices every week. We hope you are taking time to talk about the Experience with others, and to really reflect on how you feel, physically and emotionally, as the week goes on. And although we know the SNAP Experience is not perfect and can never fully depict what life is like for people on SNAP, we hope you feel proud of helping us raise awareness and that you learned something by participating.

ACAA would like to thank Beth, who authors the blog kitchenMage, for allowing us to share a link to her post about Food Stamp Challenges. We hope you’ll click through the link below to read her entire post.

“Once upon a time I was a poor single mother and I got food stamps. Not those SNAPpy little credit card things you get now, but colorful play money scrip they used back in the dark ages. It was like shopping with Monopoly money.

This is what I remember about being on food stamps:”

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In Your Words: Day 2 I Got Organized

Participant: Sandra

After going hungry for a good portion of Day 1 (due of lack of planning) I got organized really quickly. I looked at the current ads, which come to my house for free, and considered the usual price for many of my regular purchases, like milk or pasta. Below is a list of purchases. It is to my advantage that I rarely have a sweet tooth and seldom drink soda but I am a confessed carboholic. To keep the cost down for this one week experience, I purchased very differently than I would if I had SNAP benefits for a whole month. Instead of buying the family pack of chicken, portioning it out, and freezing the portions for week 2, 3, and 4, I bought one pound of chicken and marinated, since I couldn’t afford the spices. I also bought ½ a dozen eggs, knowing that I would not eat a dozen eggs in a week and saving a few pennies, fully realizing that I am paying more per egg. The same holds true for the ¼ pound of cheese and salami, which I would have bought cheaper per once and in larger portions if purchasing for the whole month.

This got me thinking about the working person on a tight budget and not receiving
SNAP benefits. It is probably safe to assume that this person is forced to make similar, less economic choices, to make it to the next paycheck with the little money that is left after paying the bills. In regards to the ChooseMyPlate guidelines, you will notice a shortage on dairy and green vegetable, an overage on protein and fat, but a fairly adequate amount of fruit and whole grain. So, the menu reads as follows:

The main entrées are:

Pasta, Ground Beef, and Spaghetti Sauce  – 2 days

Chicken and Rice Wrap – 2 days

Chicken, Rice, and Sauce – 2 days

Ground Beef Tacos – 1 day

Sides are:

Cucumber and Tomatoes – 4 days

Snacks are:

Wheat Crackers – 7 days

Bananas – 5 days

Apples – 4 days

Grapes – 5 days

Carrots – 5 days

Lunch is (boring!!!):

2 Slices of Bread, 1 Slice of Cheese, 3 Slices of Salami – 5 days (with a later and bigger breakfast and earlier dinner on the weekend, l will not need lunch for Saturday and Sunday)

Breakfast:

Oat Meal and Milk – 5 days

3 Eggs, 2 Slices of Bread, and Milk – 2 days

My Arizona SNAP Experience Grocery List
Type Amount Note  Cost
Chicken Marinated 1lb $    2.75
Ground Beef 1lb  $   2.69
Spaghetti Sauce 24 oz  $   0.75
Pasta 12 oz  $   0.89
Rice 1lb  $   0.75
Tortilla 8 ea  $   1.00
Apple 4 ea  $   1.21
Banana 5 ea  $   1.06
Wheat Crackers 8 slvs 2 boxes  $   3.00
Grapes 2lbs  $   1.68
9 Grain Bread 1 loaf  $   1.99
Carrots 1lb  $   0.68
Roman Tomatoes 1lb  $   0.88
Eggs 1/2 dz  $   0.98
Cucumbers 2 ea  $   0.69
Cheese 1/4 lb slices size 2  $   1.55
Salami 1/4 lb slices size 1  $   1.36
Milk 1 gal  $   1.57
Ice Tea Bags 24 bags one box  $   1.54
Oat Meal 18 oz 100% whole grain  $   1.58
Total Cost  $ 28.60
Total Allowance  $ 29.00
Remaining  $ (.40)

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In Your Words: 7 Days, $29, 21 Meals

Participant: Amy

I am an experiential learner. I like to see, touch, witness, feel I am part of, let my brain process emotionally and biologically. So when I decided to participate in the SNAP experience this year, I knew I would learn more than how to eat on $29 and that it would affect me on several layers (like lasagna; I’m still hungry).

SNAP is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. SNAP is not meant to be a person or family’s sole source of food; it is usually combined with food purchased by income and food received through emergency sources, such as food banks or pantries. For the SNAP Experience though the request is that a person live on only the SNAP amount. In Arizona the average single person SNAP benefit in July was $29, so that is what was used in the Experience.

One week ago I went to my local Fry’s Food Store where I have a free VIP card. I found great deals on tofu and frozen vegetables. As a vegetarian I constantly strive to find high protein foods. As a person with no thyroid on synthetic replacement medication and as a person with Metabolic Syndrome (insulin resistance), I also seek to balance carbs and protein while minimizing cholesterol, all while ‘grazing’ throughout the day. It’s always fun times for me at the grocery store…

Grocery shopping is one of the things I like to do LEAST. It was very clear last Sunday that I have a routine of buying the same items all the time. I can walk down only the aisles that I need to and be done in a short amount of time. Some items I buy monthly or so at Sam’s Club.

I avoided Sam’s Club last week, as I am guessing that a low-income or no income person on SNAP is not paying an annual fee to shop there to pay a lot of money on bulk items that may save money but really make a dent in a limited weekly budget. I also only went to one store rather than comparison shop.

I couldn’t afford the brown, cage-free eggs that I usually buy. Or the Egg Beaters that are so convenient. I skipped the high protein, high fiber Kashi Go Lean cereal that I love. There were no frozen prepared meals, Amy’s Kitchen brand, or veggie burgers. I realized the level of convenience that I make purchase decisions by and that I never have a meal plan when I go to the store. I usually just shop; buy some food, and hope that it covers meals for at least week. Sometimes what I buy one week can actually last for two. I also didn’t buy much variety,  as I tried to buy in quantity to stretch something over multiple meals, for example pinto beans and other vegetables. It didn’t help that I burned the pinto beans the morning of Day 1… so much for simmering while I took a shower and got ready for work.

I skipped free meals at work functions. I talked to people about why I was passing on the best looking french toast that I have ever seen.

My stomach growled, a lot. And I thought about food a lot more. As I got hungry I thought about how much of the veggies and tofu should I eat for dinner? If I ate too much, what would I have the next night? And I thought about restaurant food… one morning I woke up craving a burrito from Chuy’s. The next it was the bread from Logan’s. Beliore – pizza, pasta, canoli another afternoon. Valle Luna spinach enchiladas were thought of nightly as I drove by on my way home.  Mostly I missed stopping to buy iced coffees whenever I was out of the office. I started making double the amount of espresso in the morning at home, in order to carry coffee with me throughout the day.

I was tired earlier in the day than usual. I lost a lot of concentration by 5 pm and had to go home and cook something to eat. My mood was low and my work productivity probably was too.

And then on Friday I thought about the medication I receive every six weeks via infusion. It costs more than $4,000 before insurance coverage. As I  sat through my appointment I realized that if I were on SNAP, then it would basically mean that I wasn’t working. Because without the medication I wouldn’t be able to work 40+ hours per week. I would be in pain.

I’m in a life-sustaining circle of employment – health insurance – medication – health – employment – money to eat – health – money for mortgage – employment – health insurance ——–

Should my circle be broken, then I would be on SNAP. And yes, I could eat 3 meals a day for 7 days… but they wouldn’t be meals that would improve my health, so that I could work, so that I could access health insurance, so that I could be healthy, and so that I wouldn’t be hungry. I end day 7 feeling grateful. I have a job that affords me many opportunities for free meals and snacks; co-workers who like to share. This upcoming week alone I have three days when lunch will be provided. I can drink free coffee in the office. I have a boyfriend and his family that are wildly generous; we can go out to eat; we can have a pot luck and eat for weeks off the quantity of food available. I even confirmed yesterday that they would keep me if I was unemployed!

So while my stomach is not as full as it normally would be, my heart is full with compassion, and my soul is full with grace.

Peace and nourishment to you and yours.

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In Your Words: 6 Days and Weary

Participant: Brian S.

6 Days and Weary

After being on my allocated SNAP food allotment worth $29 I am weary and hungry. I am a fairly solid and big guy and not at all used to such a low protein and calorie sparse (compared to my regular nutritional habits) diet.

Here are my observations and learnings about the affect of hunger on me. You may remember my prior blog where I admitted I hadn’t really ever experienced hunger before, that has changed.

I learned by the 3rd day on the ‘SNAP Diet’ that if I spaced my smaller meals out over 4-5 meal times I wouldn’t  have such strong hunger feelings. I had feelings of being hungry but they weren’t as strong. I adapted. Then I thought about the ability I have to do that… minimum wage workers (those on SNAP) by and large cannot do that… they get one lunch break and cannot spread out their meals in the way that I can to stem my hunger and energy swings.

I learned that by the 5th day that I had a craving for a hamburger and salmon that was very powerful. In fact when starting this experience I knew I would be out of town in Portland at a conference on the 4th and 5th day so I planned to bring my meals to the conference and refused the breakfasts and lunches catered to me. I ate my oatmeal for breakfast in my room and for lunch I had celery and carrots, a hardboiled egg and a peanut butter breakfast bar, and I spaced the apples I had brought throughout the day. I ate canned tuna for dinner. People at the conference were curious about my diet so I talked about Hunger Awareness Week.

Because I knew I was going to the conference I had only used $22 of the $29 dollars and saved the $7 in case I hit a bump at the out of town conference. I spent a little less than $3.50 Friday morning purchasing a one egg scramble and 2 slices of bacon with bread for breakfast at a diner. I saved the bread for lunch but that bacon and egg was sure good.

By dinner time, after the conference was over, a colleague and I set out to get me something for $3.50 using up my balance of reserved money before heading home the next day this was going to be a real treat….

In Portland where the conference was there is a place in the downtown district that has food vendors in little trailers like you see at fairs. We found one that had a Vietnamese pork and vegetable spring roll for $3.50. When the food vendor gave me the plate I was saw that there were 3 pork and vegetable spring rolls I was elated and so excited that there were 3 and not 1 that I grabbed them and started to swiftly (almost running) walk away to woof them down… the vendor was yelling back at me through her window in protest because I forgot to pay her… A sign that I was really hungry… I was half way down the block. I did return and pay her and reflected then on how hungry I truly was… this was no longer an experiment it was no longer a mental exercise for sensitization… it was hunger…

I crave a good salad with a good piece of salmon on it. Being in Portland and around all that fresh seafood was a pity for me and clearly it is far worse for those on SNAP as it isn’t affordable…

My last observation, the smell of food is even more powerful when you are hungry! This morning I had my oatmeal early before going to the airport and as I walked through the concourse to get to my gate I walked by a coffee vendor and a cinnabon vendor… I was at least 25 feet away and those smells were so powerful to my senses it brought back my hunger pangs really fast… I couldn’t do anything about it… so I continued thinking about that coffee and those cinnamon buns with icing…

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